It was always going to be divisive. Pleasing Morrissey fans is, after all, notoriously difficult. So much so, in fact, that in 2008, Morrissey penned ‘All You Need Is Me’, a song entirely about his so-called fans who obsessively lambaste his every move. ‘England Is Mine’, released on DVD this month, received plenty of censure before it had even reached post-production. People seemed determined to hate it purely for existing at all. Well, their loss.
If you watch the film expecting scrupulous accuracy, it will undoubtedly disappoint. During a preview screening, director and writers Mark Gill and William Thacker admitted to not having read Morrissey’s ‘Autobiography’. At times, it shows. When Morrissey (Jack Lowden) and his best friend Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay) go to see Patti Smith at the Apollo Theatre and Linder insists that “nobody watches the support bands,” a Morrissey aficionado can’t help but wince at the irony. After all, they actually met at the third Sex Pistols gig in Manchester. At that time, Linder was with Buzzcocks, who just so happened to be the support band. What it sometimes lacks in accuracy, though, it more than makes up for in heart.
‘England Is Mine’ explores Morrissey’s early life, from his late teens to the genesis of The Smiths. At only ninety minutes long, narrative sacrifices of course had to be made, but they’re not for nothing. Defending the decision not to read ‘Autobiography’ prior to penning the script, the writers explained that they didn’t want the specifics of reality to intrude on their creative process. An unusual approach to writing a biopic, perhaps, but one which actually works, and works astoundingly well.
Despite inaccuracies, missing details, altered chronology and fabrications, their depiction of Morrissey rings remarkably true. It touches, subtly and intelligently, on everything that a Morrissey biopic ought to, from his artistic influences to his enigmatic sexuality to his relationships with his parents, its artistic liberties allowing it to do so without trying to cover too much in too little time. Its Morrissey is armed with delightful one-liners and a sharp sense of humour which his genuine counterpart is so rarely given credit for. Lowden, meanwhile, has clearly studied his subject extensively. His facial expressions, body language and accented crooning seem sometimes so authentic that it actually feels as though you’re watching footage from forty years ago, somehow remastered in high definition.
Amongst its other qualities, ‘England Is Mine’ is also aesthetically excellent, and the soundtrack alone is stunning. Featuring the likes of the New York Dolls, Sparks, Roxy Music, Diana Dors, Dean Martin and The Shangri-Las, the film is a treat not just for Morrissey buffs, but for 60s and 70s music fans as well. Combined with stellar filmography and charming set and costume design, it is a work of art in its own right. Its world of littered canals, tasteless wallpaper, corduroy jackets and excessive eyeliner feels refreshingly real, which, given its subject matter, is only as it should be.
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It is a film about an individual, yes. Thematically, though, it is a film about ambition, self-determination, perseverance in spite of the odds. It is a ray of hope for anyone chasing a seemingly impossible dream, anyone who feels adrift from the world. That’s what being a Morrissey fan is all about, isn’t it? The narrative may not always be faithful, but it is always absolutely emotionally honest.
It would’ve been so easy to portray Morrissey as a morose hermit who spent his youth perpetually fading away in the corner of his bedroom until Johnny Marr arrived to rescue him. So easy, and so reductive. Morrissey’s struggles with depression are handled frankly and sensitively, but this film also shows us the Morrissey who is deeply passionate about music and writing. The Morrissey who is fiercely devoted to the people he loves. The Morrissey who clawed his way out of hardship by the sheer force of his determination to be heard. It shows us not just Morrissey the artist, but Morrissey the human being. Morrissey’s experiences and sentiments have spoken to countless people over the years. Given the opportunity, this film will do the same.
If we can learn anything from Morrissey, it’s that the truth is not always particular. Does it matter if he ever really booked himself in at a YWCA or met a charming man in a charming car or dreamt that somebody loved him? Of course not. It’s the feelings that matter. They’re real. The rest is secondary. ‘England Is Mine’ is not a perfect biography, but what it is is heartfelt and moving. It’s a reverent tribute to someone who means so much to so many, someone who made, and continues to make, real music for real people. It’s a beautiful depiction of what it is to dream.